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August 11, 2011

Egyptian Women Seek Rights After Revolution

by Al Pessin

Many activists in Egypt hope the revolution earlier this year will lead to more rights for women.  Experts say that will likely happen, but like nearly everything in any new democracy, it will not be a smooth process.

Egyptian women joined the protests that ousted the former government in January and February, and the more recent protests and sit-ins to press the current interim government to move to parliamentary elections and a new constitution.

The women and men shared the same goals, ousting the former regime and creating a real democracy.

But there were some women who also had goals specific to women's rights.  Among them was Habiba Darwish Mohammed, a government employee.

"Women should have guaranteed seats in the parliament, and have full rights and independence, freedom from intimidation, and equality with men when it comes to divorce and child visitation," she said.

For more than 15 years, the Center for Egyptian Women has been working for such rights.  One of its founders is Azza Soliman:

"In the long term, the new constitution should make the status of women equal to all men, and it should protect the rights of both men and women," said Soliman.

But that is more easily said than done.  In March, Egyptians voted to have the new parliament - to be elected this fall - write a new constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood's new political party is expected to play a significant, perhaps leading, role in that process.

Party vice-chairman Essam El-Erian says in Islam, women are equal to men.  But he adds that there is room for interpretation of that concept.

"This implementation of Islamic regulation is different from society to another one," noted El-Erian.  "You know that even in some countries that are supported by the West all the time, women are prevented from even driving."

That kind of talk could be cause for concern for those who advocate women's rights, like Azza Soliman.

"When it comes to values like justice, equality and social justice nobody will argue about it," added Soliman.  "But exactly what people mean by those terms will vary, and the needs of women in different social and economic situations also varies."

Soliman says Egypt needs a strategic plan to educate both men and women about the importance of everyone's rights.

"Of course, some men may try to prevent the women in their families from voting, or try to control their votes.  That's why awareness and enlightenment are important for both.  Democratic transformation will take time," Soiman explained.

The Egyptian women who came out to protest in Cairo and other cities made a start on that, but Soliman and other activists agree the work will have to continue for years to come.